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Sound lands on Google Earth

Bernie Krause teaches the world to listen – not just to a few bird chirps, but the whole environmental symphony.

By Ray SikorskiContributor to The Christian Science Monitor / June 5, 2007

Glen Ellen, Calif.

In the living room of bioacoustician Bernie Krause's California wine country home, a reporter's click on a Google Earth computer image of Antarctica produces a sound so foreign, there seems no possible way it could emanate from this planet.

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But Dr. Krause, who has spent the past 40 years collecting sounds from around the globe, explains that the clicks, chirps, and howling ethereal decrescendos are indeed from this planet: They're made by Weddell seals inhabiting the frozen continent's McMurdo Sound.

"You know what they're doing?" asks Krause, suddenly animated. "They're imitating thunderstorms at the equator." He explains the theory that the seals use their skulls to pick up the electrical energy of thunderstorms transmitted through the earth's magnetic field from half a world away.

"They're social animals," he says. "They do that over long stretches of open water."

The aquatic discourse is among the 30-plus sounds now available as "The Wild Soundscape Tour," a free add-on layer to Google Earth, the downloadable navigation tool that allows users to scan the planet using steerable satellite images. Through Krause's website, one can now not only see the Amazonian rain forest, but hear the monkeys, jaguars, birds, and musical frogs that call it home. The same goes for the inhabitants of the wild places of Zimbabwe, Costa Rica, Madagascar, Indonesia, and Yellowstone National Park, as well as the not-so-wild urban soundscapes of New York, London, Paris, and Lisbon.

"You can immediately hear a difference between the places," says 30 Proof Media creative director Jesse Evans, explaining that police sirens and even just the traffic set the cities apart. "Once you start paying attention to it, you hear it immediately," says Mr. Evans, who with his brother/partner, Sam Evans, created the sound-embedding program.

Any programmer can add a layer of data, known as a KML layer, to the Google Earth program; in the case of The Wild Soundscape Tour, Google was impressed enough to give 30 Proof access to one of its developers to assist the project.

"When we see such truly spectacular KML layers, we do reach out with advice and support," says Megan Quinn, a Google spokesperson.


Paying attention to what people hear has become Krause's mission in life. Raised in Detroit, Krause moved to New York City to seek fame and fortune as a musician, and played for a time with the folk group The Weavers. He became better known for his pioneering work with the Moog synthesizer, teaming with Paul Beaver to put out "The Nonesuch Guide to Electronic Music." A 1968 collaboration with Mr. Beaver called "Into a Wild Sanctuary" focused on ecology by creating an album of natural sounds.

"By natural sound I'm talking about the entire soundscape, not separating out signature animals like wolves, a bird or two, or whales. That was a big shift in musical concept, which nobody got until..." Krause pauses to think. "They're just beginning to get it now."

In that early natural sound endeavor, Krause ventured from his San Francisco base to Muir Woods, Baker Beach, Fisherman's Wharf, and the San Francisco Zoo. "Having to record outside, and work in the natural world for the first time, I was terrified, actually [of what may have been lurking there]," he confesses. "But having to do that for the album changed my life, as soon as I turned on the recorder and heard that sound."

He says the sounds of birds and the wind in the trees relaxed him, and he realized there was nothing to fear at all.

Krause continued to record, ranging farther afield; first to California's Sierra Nevada and Trinity Mountains, and later to Alaska, Latin America, Indonesia, and Africa, giving up traditional music and getting a PhD in bioacoustics.

"I was aware of this kind of atavistic relationship, a sense of experiencing a distant past, not only in my life, but in human life," he says, referring to a feeling of a deep genetic connection between humans and the natural world that was triggered by sound.